Dear Artist,

In the late twenties a young American artist and Cézanne enthusiast by the name of Erle Loran moved into Cézanne’s studio. For two years Erle wandered the countryside around Aix-en-Provence and photographed the scenes that the deceased artist had painted. The result was a remarkable and intelligent book. Cézanne’s Composition, now only in paperback, is a clear-headed artist’s analysis of what he thought was going on in Cézanne’s mind and, more importantly, what was going on in his pictures.


“Mont Sainte-Victoire and Chateau Noir”
oil on canvas, 1904-6
by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906)
Bridgestone Museum of Art, Tokyo

Two things have always struck me about Erle’s photos vis-à-vis Cézanne’s paintings. First, there’s the ordinariness of the subjects themselves — pedestrian views, buildings, quarries, farms — the relative formlessness of Mont Sainte Victoire which he painted many times. Second, the paintings’ closeness to actuality. We are looking at an artist who was trying to get it right.

Then we compare the interest of Cézanne’s surfaces, their limitations, their mannerisms. We look at the wooden color, deadly blacks, tentative search for line, struggling volumes, eye-control devices, absence of aerial perspective, and the characteristic fidgets.

Cézanne, it seems to me, was an artist who was conscious of his shortcomings. “It is for me to only show the way,” he said in a depressed moment. He took a long time with his paintings, like an amateur. While few would admit it, he worked within the safety and conservatism that his style permitted, and it was his style that won — a unique fidget carried from canvas to canvas and in a million modifications into the studios of the world.


“Mont Sainte-Victoire”
oil on canvas, c. 1895
by Paul Cézanne
The Barnes Foundation, Merion, PA, USA

Best regards,


PS: “I advance all of my canvas at one time.” (Cézanne)

“Many of Cézanne’s statements and letters have led to the critical error of assuming his theories to be in accord with his actual work.” (Erle Loran)

Esoterica: I was in Cézanne’s studio in the suburbs of Aix. His coat and hat hung near the door, as if he were still somewhere around. Paint spotted the floor, like my studio and perhaps yours. The window-glass had that uneven surface one sees in old windows. Through it the orchard, the white buildings and tiled roofs of Aix were broken into little swatches of color — like a Cézanne. Could it be?

This letter was originally published as “Fidget” on October 20, 2000.



  1. “Many of Cézanne’s statements and letters have led to the critical error of assuming his theories to be in accord with his actual work.” (Erle Loran)

    That goes for all artist’s “statements” and is the reason they should be avoided by the artist and ignored by the viewer. Creativity is mostly unconscious.

    • Interesting about the cubistic glass… I read once El Greco might have had astigmatism which would have elongated figures in his eyesight. Interesting!! and, pretty funny!

      • If astigmatism elongated, for El Greco, the things which he saw and wished to paint, wouldn’t it also have done the same to how he saw his canvas. As a consequence, his paintings would have been true to life in their proportions, even though his perceptions were distorted.

    • “Creativity is mostly unconscious”…I like that. I would hope that all the theory I’m learning in all of my art classes will somehow find it’s way onto my papers and canvases, but how exactly, I don’t know. Sometimes I think my artwork is regressing!

      • I find that when my work feels like it’s regressing it’s because new things are happening. It’s a good thing. New feelings are entering the unconscious and when we don’t ‘SEE ‘ it yet ,it makes us uncomfortable.

    • “That goes for all artist’s “statements” and is the reason they should be avoided by the artist and ignored by the viewer. Creativity is mostly unconscious.” The art professors at the University of Colorado Denver would argue against these two notions. Not saying you are wrong but they put us through an entire semester on presenting ourselves as conscious, thinking professionals along with a well crafted statements, bios, and resumes. Sounds like the art world might be divided on these topics.

      • Kim Adamache- I’m going to agree with you. Warren Criswell- my creativity isn’t unconscious AT ALL. I’ve awakened from the collective trance- I’ve been pursuing the manifestation of my creative expression since I was a child- and full-time for more that 30 years- and that requires my awakened consciousness be focused on my creativity all the time. Now having said that- I’m also fully open to my own inspiration- which does flow out of my sub/super-consciousness when I need it to- usually because I’ve given myself time to sleep on a (perceived) ‘problem’. But it does not come from my UN-consciousness.

        So my artists statements all come from that awakened place- and fly right over most people’s heads… which I had to quit caring about.

    • Raymond Mosier on

      Cezanne’s style has always been mysterious and enigmatic to me. It is hard to think of his paintings as being other than quickly done. They do not look labored over. Admired by me for fifty years.

      • Jim Stewart on

        “trying to get it right” in reference to Cezanne is a new thought to me. I admire the paintings, go through the books, and always enjoy what he put forward. For his work the canvas size did not matter. Once one decides not to paint leaves and blades of grass you have the color, in a certain series, to place and probably replace once a few more passages have been made. Like the – for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction idea, every part has to fit. As in a puzzle. Trying to find the abstract substance to describe the perceived physical world takes time. His is external, not internal painting is how I see it.

        • And one of the wonderul things about painting something in the physical world in a more abstract way, is that more is left to the viewer to interpret. The artist might intend for those green and blue strokes to be grass, but the view might perceive them as something different…and that’s great.

  2. In my view, the paintings are not realistic. They do not give us the true meaning of the artist’s mind. On the other hand, the paintings show some kind of blur , the different colors are just floating.

    I agree with you, there is some kind of depression with the artist. Furthermore, it takes more time to make a correction, which can happen with me too.

  3. In his “Letters on Cezanne,” Rainer Maria Rilke relates a sad story about a visitor at Cezanne’s who, in the middle of a meal, talking about Balzac’s “The Hidden (or Unknown) Masterpiece,” describes the invented painter Frenhofer who is destroyed by the discovery that there really are no contours but only oscillating transitions – and Cezanne, upon hearing this, stands up and, voiceless with agitation, points his finger over and over again at himself.

    • Yes, Cezanne’s triumph and his legacy was NOT to “be destroyed by the discovery that there really are no contours but only oscillating transitions” and to celebrate that in his late work.

    • Not a sad story, I see it as a moment when a painter hears someone use a descriptive phrase that exactly describes what he or she is attempting to illuminate in paint. A transformative moment when no words come, but there is an excited connection with some deeply help visual belief. I totally resonate with this idea of no contours, and it is the basis of my own energy painting. Everything and everybody is just one mass of ossilating transitions – I love that!

  4. Recommend reading Cezanne: A Life by Alex Danchev. Read it a few months ago for a graduate painting class. Well researched and presented. Excellent and enlightening read.

  5. Great to receive this letter from the past… I was lucky enough last year to visit Aix en Provence and to tour Cezanne’s studio, then walk up the hill to where he painted many wonderful views of Mont Sainte-Victoire. It was amazing to be in his studio, brushes and paint pots still sitting there along with objects seen in many of his still-life paintings. I am also lucky to own a “hard back” copy of the 1950 edition of Loran’s book… it is a wonderful book.

  6. Great letter – and replies, thank you Sara. Could somebody please explain for me the difference between contours and transitions? Thank you very much. Carin

    • Thank you for this, Sara. Am sitting in studio as dusk creeps in – here in that ‘distinctive NZ light’ it arrives from the ground up, so the sky is still bright while the foreground silhouettes itself into a Magritte. It’s hard to remember, but I do, that internal ‘oh’ when I realised there were no real lines in nature – just contrasts of shades or colours. As someone who loves a good line, ( cartooning one of many day jobs) this discovery left me slightly bereft, but also enlarged. No contour, just a shift in one or more of several values… .for example finding two colours that look exactly the same in greyscale, blend at edges.

  7. There is something in Cezanne’s paintings which I always find compelling. I know there are better painters around, but there is an honesty in his work, a stubborn desire for “getting it right” that I find very powerful. By saying “getting it right”, I mean getting the feeling right. Cezanne projects the feel of the place, of his neighbours, of the fruit on his table. His work is neither airy or delicate; it is solid and workmanlike. And I sense Robert is quite right in thinking Cezanne knew his own limitations and painted within them. But I don’t know whether that’s a bad thing or a good thing.

  8. New beginnings can happen without us even trying in our art. Recently an artist that attends my workshops yearly commented that my work has changed in the last couple of years, it has become more colorful and looser. While trying to bring my art to a higher level I always try something different, taking time to study how color works with each other, mixing differently, exaggerate the subject and color. The trying and studying is always new and changes us in little ways. Hopefully for the better. Loved this letter, almost thought it was your father writing it at first.

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